Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Editorial | When judges err

Published:Saturday | April 8, 2017 | 4:00 AM

Recent decisions in a number of high-profile court cases are helping to create a crisis of confidence in Jamaica's criminal justice system. Now there is one more to be added to the list - the case of Nerice Samuels, a 33-year-old mother of two.

Accused of unlawful wounding in what looked like a squabble among neighbours, Ms Samuels pleaded not guilty to the charge, but was nevertheless sent to prison by Chief Parish Judge Judith Pusey, without undergoing trial. She was not represented by counsel.

This exceptional case, which took place in October 2015, only came to light this week when the appeal court overturned her conviction and sentence. The case has become a fierce talking point, with many persons expressing anger at the injustice meted out to Ms Samuels.

Judges are human beings and they do make mistakes. However, it is not even possible to overstate the gravity of what occurred in Regina v Nerice Samuels. For ordinary folk who come into contact with the law, the court environment can be intimidating, partly because they would not be familiar with legal protocol and the issues surrounding the conduct of a court case. It, therefore, becomes necessary for a judge to demonstrate respect for the law and the persons brought before the court by helping to guide the accused through the process. This is one way of maintaining the public's confidence in the administration of justice.

 

DISRESPECT FOR THE LAW

 

In October 2015, this very experienced judge adopted a significant and unexplained departure from what has been accepted and practised in the courts of the land. She showed arrant disrespect for the law by not accepting the not-guilty plea of the unrepresented accused and setting a trial date.

Even if Ms Samuels had been tried and found guilty, her crime did not warrant six months in jail. That's the opinion of the appeal court panel of three judges. For her part, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn feels that the circumstances of the case would possibly warrant referral to a dispute resolution council, but not prison time.

What is even more troubling is the assertion by the DPP that her staff have reported other such cases to her. Of course, the fact that the DPP and Judge Pusey had a long-running dispute in the Kern Spencer trial perhaps colours, and even invalidates, the sincerity of her arguments against the jurist.

Ms Samuels was fortunate to have the means and support system to hire a lawyer and challenge this ruling by the learned judge. But how many persons can even afford to take this option to get justice?

When a judge makes such an egregious mistake, what should happen? Should there be censure? Should there be compensation for the victim? We note that the appeal court acknowledged Ms Pusey's error of judgement with a rather mild rebuke. Meanwhile, the opposition spokesman on justice, Senator Mark Golding, has called on the chief justice, Zaila McCalla, to undertake a review of this case.

But we would go a bit further. If we really want to restore even a modicum of confidence in the administration of justice, there ought to be an urgent review of all the cases determined by this judge in which the accused persons had no legal representation and for the findings to be made public.

Judges and other officers of the court must recognise their personal and collective duty to uphold the highest standards of conduct in order to restore public confidence in the judicial system. A reprimand notwithstanding, and though it is en vogue for the religious season, the public should not crucify Judge Pusey for what the appeal panel ruled to be a serious misjudgment; other judges have had decisions ruled incorrect in far worse cases.